Public Libraries, and a Pedagogy for Lifelong Learning

Recently, Library Trends released its latest issue on the core values of librarianship. I haven’t yet had time to read through all the articles, but I did start with Elmborg’s piece, titled Tending the Garden of Learning: Lifelong Learning as Core Library Value. It’s a philosophical read that got me thinking about what a pedagogy of lifelong learning might look like in the public library (from a practical standpoint).

First of all, what is lifelong learning, really? One of the best descriptions I have come across appeared in an editorial in the November 1975 issue of Educational Leadership. Wilbur J. Cohen wrote that “learning is a continuous, permanent, lifelong pursuit. It is a process which commences with birth and only terminates at death and is then carried on by others in a never-ending continuum.” (On a side note, Wilbur Cohen was one of the pioneers of our social security system. You can read more about how he got into education here. Pretty interesting).

I love that definition because it describes what I think most public libraries currently aim to do: support learning through the lifespan. However, I do think they are better at supporting some parts of the lifespan better than others. Certainly, early literacy efforts are a standard of practice in virtually all public libraries. Many public libraries do a great job with educational programming and resources for the families in their communities. Senior citizens as well. And now, with growing trends like maker spaces and gaming in the library, public libraries are supporting new literacies with the youth in their communities (whether they recognize this as learning or not).

Where I see public libraries faltering with supporting lifelong learning are the parts of the lifespan where formal learning (including professional learning) takes place. In the Library Trends article, Elmborg made this same observation when he stated that “the public library has lagged far behind in pursuing a pedagogically progressive version of information literacy as a central part of its mission” (p.548).

The question is, do public libraries really need to pursue a “pedagogically progressive version of information literacy”? I don’t think so, at least not in the sense of public libraries needing to design and implement formal information literacy programs within their walls. I say this because information literacy is both contextual and situational, practiced both formally and informally (just like learning). Also, because I see the public library’s role in formal information literacy as peripheral (not to be taught, just to be supported — at least in most cases). So for public libraries, I propose a less formal approach to information literacy, one found within the pedagogy of lifelong learning.

What does a pedagogy of lifelong learning look like for a public library? I envision a pedagogy of partnerships that allows the public library to play a role in learning (and information literacy) across the lifespan. A pedagogy that includes the following partnerships (when relevant to the community’s needs):

  • Preschool partnerships (e.g., story times, early literacy initiatives)
  • K-12 partnerships (e.g., supporting curriculum needs and gaps when possible, homework clubs, tutoring, after school programming)
  • Community college / university partnerships (e.g., transitional programming that exposes high school students and adult returning students to the expectations of college level research, online learning support)
  • Local business partnerships (e.g., supporting professional learning)
  • Partnerships with local organizations (e.g., social services and resource support, ESL and adult literacy programming, senior programming)
  • Patron partnerships for personal learning (e.g., teen advisory boards, but also other interest groups such as families, single adults, senior citizens, special needs populations, etc…) What groups in your community are under served?

For a public library to truly address learning across the lifespan, a pedagogy of partnerships is crucial for both assessing unmet needs and for providing the right learning support to the community. However, before that can happen, public libraries need to recognize themselves as legitimate learning institutions, albeit informal learning institutions. That means being able to articulate the learning value of the services they already provide that many see as purely recreational. For example, gaming and tinkering (maker spaces) support the problem solving and critical thinking skills that are required to be information literate. And it stands to reason that recreational readers become self-regulated readers who become self-regulated learners.


3 thoughts on “Public Libraries, and a Pedagogy for Lifelong Learning

  1. Speaking of lifelong learning, I have recently closed down the UnofficialFactChecker blog and have created, a site meant to help academic librarians create semester-long LIS courses on their campuses; however, the site is useful to anyone wanting to learn about info lit! It includes research guides, an online textbook, sample syllabi, and multimedia content. Soon I will add a couple more chapters to the textbook and keep a repository of information literacy assignments and exercises. Hope you like it, and if so, share this free resource with anyone you think might like it!

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